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The Painted Bird: Stigma and Mental Illness

The Painted Bird: Stigma and Mental Illness


As the boy in Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 book, The Painted Bird, wanders about Eastern Europe fleeing the Nazis who have entrapped his Polish parents, he witnesses an event that is apocryphal in its depiction of stigma. He comes upon a professional bird catcher who paints a captured bird with many colors, and then releases it to the sky. The boy watches as the soaring, painted bird comes upon its flock and is mercilessly attacked by its own. The bird plummets, dead, to the earth below.

At a moment when mental health is so much at the forefront of the minds of Americans and our media, it seems time, again, to try to understand the damaging views so commonly held about people with mental illness. Trustworthy information tells us that people with serious mental illnesses are no more dangerous than the general public—if their condition is treated and they are not abusing alcohol or drugs. In fact, people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators. In addition, ample evidence also exists that effectively managed mental illnesses need not be barriers to fulfilling and lasting relationships and to achieving career aspirations.

Yet, equally compelling evidence tells us that people fear, avoid, and otherwise stigmatize those with mental illnesses despite the fact that a bird remains a bird even if its feathers are painted. A new study sheds more light on this complex phenomenon and may better direct efforts at its elimination.

The American Journal of Public Health recently published, online, a study (one of a group of papers) on stigma and discrimination against those who suffer from mental disorders.1 Individuals from the US, Europe, Asia, and Africa (16 countries in all) were asked to read a short vignette describing a person with either schizophrenia or depression. While symptoms were clearly portrayed (such as paranoia, agitation, and hearing voices in one case, and sadness, difficulty in concentrating, and feeling worthless and discouraged in the other), no diagnostic label was offered, nor was sex or race, thus reducing other potential biases.

Study participants were queried about their knowledge about mental conditions, including whether it was a brain disease and whether treatment can work. They were also assessed for stigma with questions about reluctance to interact with the person described, whether mental illness renders people “inferior” or dangerous, and whether someone would experience unwanted consequences if he or she were revealed to have a mental disorder.

This study demonstrated that while there is generally widespread understanding about mental illness, “rejecting . . . notions of individual weakness . . . [and] moral failure,” there was a “backbone” of stigma: People with mental illness were seen as having potential for violence (especially toward themselves) as well as problems meeting role responsibilities for children (eg, caring and teaching), and they were undesirable for marrying into families. While schizophrenia was more likely to be seen as a brain disease than was depression, there was greater stigma toward people with schizophrenia, including their social inclusion and meeting role responsibilities.

The CDC released complementary findings in a 2010 study of more than 200,000 adults in 35 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico who were asked about their attitudes toward mental illness. They showed that despite generally positive public attitudes that mental health treatment works, those with mental illness continue to feel that others are not “caring and sympathetic.” In other words, they still feel excluded among their own flock despite a public knowledgeable about mental illness and its treatments.

The authors of the American Journal of Public Health study raised doubt about whether educational campaigns that focus (exclusively) on mental illness as a medical condition—a brain disease—could reduce stigma about mental disorders.

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